February 19, 2015

The Computer Ate My Homework

Categories: Digital Citizenship, Educational Practice
little kid sitting at desk learning on ipad with pictures and diagrams

The family computer recently stopped working. This wouldn’t be the end of the world normally, however, my oldest son’s second-grade classroom implemented a new homework policy. Instead of having homework on paper, all homework is done on the computer across three sites.

This new policy was implemented because it makes the homework “smarter.” The difficulty of the work can automatically adjust as the student improves. A report is sent to the teacher right away, letting her know how long it is taking the student to do the work. She gets a readout that can compare the student’s progress to the rest of the class, as well as a general readout of how the class is doing overall. And, since my oldest son is in a bilingual program, he can do Spanish dictation, record it, and send it to his teacher so she can hear if he is having pronunciation problems. Finally, since the work is algorithmically graded and monitored, the teacher can spend more time planning what to do in class, based on common issues of the students, instead of spending a good portion of time grading homework.

When the computer stopped working, we were suddenly forced to acknowledge some access limits. The first was, when my son comes home, my computer is not there. So, where would he be able to do his homework? We thought of the library, but there isn’t one very close to us, and going to one would add commute time to homework. Additionally, once there, having a young child yelling at the computer in Spanish seemed counter to the culture of the library. Given the added time, and the limits on what he could do, we decided against the library.

My son had received an affordable tablet for his birthday, so we decided to see if the websites that he uses for homework had apps we could install on his tablet. They did. 

Our solution was using a different device. The cookies, the unique bits of data that linked the computer and browser to my son’s ID all changed. If this reoccurs, it might flag his profile.

The apps have their own security issues as well. Licenses for apps are often different than the ones on laptops. In order to function properly, tablets tend to need to gather a lot more information about what is happening in the device. Additionally, as tablets are portable devices, there is a lot more information, such as location, saved usernames, reading files in other programs, etc. that can be made available. The apps, thankfully, didn’t need access to all information about other applications running in the background or the location data. But, if they did, we would need to download them. If, in the future, they want to trace my son’s tablet around by tracking the location, and then sending that information to the teacher, and I want him to be able to do his homework on his tablet, I will have to say “yes.”

The question this brings up is, what do protocols — that ensure teachers, parents, and students are aware of security issues and data tracking — look like? California’s Student Online Personal Information Protection Act is promising and the Student Digital Privacy Act proposed by President Obama in mid-January mean there is a bigger conversation happening, as we move to determining how this will look in the future, we need to make sure that the voices of families are not lost in determining what practices will be legally protected. 

There is a secondary problem: a language barrier. It’s more obvious at my son’s school than it might be for students in a single language school. When technological practices and digital media are made central to learning, there is a chance that the inability to simply navigate the space might be an issue for some families, especially when the child might not be old enough to read in the language of instruction. How do we make sure these families also are included and protected?

There is another data issue that isn’t just about data literacy: the economic and place barrier to computerized homework. For students who do not have access to these things for socioeconomic reasons, getting to a library during working hours might be their best option, but might not be a realistic possibility. Plus, having to go to the library to do homework seems to go against the idea of it being work you can do at home.

There are alternatives to online homework. At my son’s school, for those who cannot access the homework online, the teachers can send home printouts from the website. Students who have barriers to access are not computed into the class averages and when they are, only partial information is collected. Even if the teacher inputs the student responses, information about time to complete, attempts, etc., are not included as they are for students doing homework online. Additionally, relational information about what is taking more time, is lost. This means that the algorithm that tracks class progress is flawed. As the teachers become dependent on these readouts to determine what to work on, there is a risk that some students will be left behind.

So the big questions I am left with from this ordeal are: how can we make sure that students who don’t have access to technology are able to get the same level of feedback? And, how do we make sure their progress is part of the class report?

I don’t know the answers, but if anyone has any ideas or experiences of best practices for these situations, I’d love to hear them.

Banner image credit: Jade E. Davis